For Angela Rayner, insecure work is personal. Long before she rose to be Labour’s deputy leader, she was working in care: “I started off on a zero-hours contract,” she recalls of the nineties but, “at the time, there was a different phrase: they called us casual workers.”
The prevalence may have risen, and the parlance has changed, but the brutal basic practice has not. The vague terms from her employers were: “you work for us some time between 7am and 10pm, over seven days, flexible… we didn’t know from one week to the next what our hours are going to be. I remember quite vividly it being very, very difficult, especially because I had a young son.” Work was at once inflexible with response to family demands, and insecure with regard to what money was coming in, and times were hard.
But somewhere along the line, as she swapped from private to council work and got involved in the union, she found herself in a team that got itself into a different position vis-a-vis management. A “predominantly female workforce” was left alone to sort out shifts for themselves: “we all got together, sat down and came up with rotas that worked for us. For some people, home commitments meant it was better to work weekends; for others, evenings; for others again, mornings; if somebody needed a regular time-off for a school-run, others pitched in, so it gave continuity of service to the people we were looking after.” There was less often a family reason to take a sick day. “Productivity was great, we all felt much better and people didn’t find themselves having to leave their jobs.”
Rayner points back to this first-hand experience and explains: “this is why I was so pushy on Labour’s recent pledge around make flexible working” a real right with teeth, and “from day one.” Some objected: “‘Well, that can’t work,’ they would say, ‘People in frontline jobs can’t have flexible working… if you work at Costa for example, and you’re delivering coffees, you have to be physically there, in the shop to deliver it.’” But there’s actually alternative, less-rigid ways of arranging the shifts to get the work done; it already “happens informally all the time, and the best employers know it.”
Under Keir Starmer, Labour is anxious to rebuild some of the bridges it burned with business under Jeremy Corbyn, and Rayner is emphatic that this is not an anti-management agenda: “this isn’t just about Angela Rayner, trade union rep, working-class girl shouting about workers, it’s actually about employers, and how it could be beneficial for them too. I know that, too, because I’ve seen it firsthand.” “The goodwill you get” from flexibility, she says, will bring down costs on things like sickness and, with improved retention, also save on recruitment and management costs.
Rayner thinks the word “flexibility” gets bandied about in a lopsided way: less imaginative managers think it means “an open-ended contract that says ‘you work for me, whenever I ask you.’” But ultimately, that is “untenable” for their staff and so for them too. The only sustainable way through is “a bit of give and take.” The best employers “get this” and so are more productive; others are still held back by “traditional prejudices around how a job should be done.” But “the pandemic has shown how all sides can be flexible when they have to be,” creating “an opportunity to look at it all again.”
Even more than inflexibility, Rayner sees the “number one problem” as being insecurity: not knowing what money you’ve got coming in so “you don’t know whether… you’re going to pay your mortgage, or your rent.” Again, she insists, it can harm employers as much as staff: if firms can’t commit to staff, they “can’t keep them, retention is low—and that’s not a long term business plan.” On zero-hours contracts, especially, she is emphatic: “we would ban them.” She sees them, and other contracting arrangements that deny workers basic rights like statutory sick pay as being “very much” a growing problem, largely because of the “gig economy.”
But it is the pandemic that has left her truly “disgusted” at precarity across the wider labour market: “we could clap key workers and say what heroes they are: shop workers that faced the additional risk of going in every day, making sure that we have the food we needed. The bus drivers, the train drivers, the nurses, the carers,” the last of these initially asked to “press on without PPE.” While professional and office workers could often negotiate different patterns to accommodate things like home-schooling, those on “the front-line” “didn’t have that option… Many are in poverty pay and on insecure contracts, and that’s totally unacceptable. They had to put their lives on the line to protect our interests as a country.” It’s now incumbent on the rest of us to “close that gap” in their terms and conditions.
So what does she want in an Employment Bill? Labour’s over-arching idea is what she calls “single-worker status,” a sort of levelling-up of rights across staff on different forms of contracts, and with different tenures, covering everything from sick pay to dismissal.
Coming back to flexibility, she wants to “strengthen the right to request” introduced by the Blair government. She acknowledges that “not every firm can provide every flexibility,” but insists there is rarely a good reason for refusing any. There are too many get-out clauses, freeing employers to say: “Oh, this is in the too-hard box, we can’t manage it.” The presumption must be that it should be granted, “unless there’s exceptional reason why not.”
As well as the balance between employer and employee, she thinks we need to be mindful of a second sort of balance within the employee’s life, between work and family time: “And at the end of the day, that’s what it should be about—we go to work to live, we don’t live for work.”